BARCELONA, Spain -- I've got a friend who, whenever I bump into him, invariably says, "Mike, I love women."
Now, you may ask why he says this:
A. He has questions about his sexual preference.
B. He thinks there's an off-chance I might be a woman.
C. He hopes that if, in fact, I turn out not to be a woman, I might know where some are.
But, what he never says -- indeed, what you rarely hear anyone say -- is that he loves women's basketball.
A. It's women's basketball.
B. It's women's basketball.
C. It's women's basketball.
Yes, folks, we're back at the Olympics, and the women are going for a third consecutive gold, and there's a familiar theme being played.
Stop me if you've heard this one before. It goes like this: If only people would watch our game, they'd come to appreciate it and we could play pro ball in America, because people would see that women's hoops has to be more interesting than, say, indoor soccer. Then instead of having to go play in Italy or Japan, where you can't get good sushi in one or good pizza in the other, we can stay home and have both. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
The difference this year is the Dream Team. What the women are hoping for is sort of a Dream Team coattail effect, if a whirlwind actually has a coattail to hang on to.
In 1984, there was this feeling that once the women won a gold, everything would be better. It wasn't.
In 1988, it was the year to beat the Russians, who weren't there in '84, and people would get behind the game. They didn't.
Now, the Dream Team.
The women opened yesterday, beating Czechoslovakia by 56 points. It was quite a day. Most of the Dream Team were in attendance, watching the women give strong evidence to the effect that they're the best team in their sport, lifetime.
Magic Johnson gave the women T-shirts from his personal collection. The women gave him that 111-55 win.
Cynthia Cooper, who, you should know, counts Charles Barkley as her favorite player, summed up the action thus:
This is the year for us. Although we're two-time defending world champions and gold medalists, this is a big year for women's basketball. It's something we don't like to talk about, but it's a fact.
"We have some NBA people here. If we want to get a professional league in the states, we have to show them. We have to show them what we're all about. There are a lot of people who've never seen women's basketball. We have to be conscious of that and try to put women's basketball on the map."
It's on the map, the map of Italy and the map of Japan, where they have pro leagues.
They've tried pro leagues in the United States, and they've all flopped. People have watched. They just haven't liked it.
Now, tell me I'm crazy -- it's OK -- but I do like it. Maybe you won't, but no one can say anymore that the women can't play. This is no half-court-two-dribbles- and-pass basketball. The game is speeding up every day. They pass, they shoot. It's not the Dream Team, but Steffi Graf can't beat Boris Becker, either. I just know that it's real-life basketball with real-life talent.
You can't watch Teresa Edwards and not think it's basketball. But during the Olympics is the only time you'll see her. Of the 12 women on the team, 11 play in pro leagues overseas. One, Suzie McConnell, stayed home to have a baby. We've basically made outcasts of our best players.
A few weeks ago, Edwards said: "I don't know what's special besides wearing the red, white and blue. We go overseas to make a living, and we come back for nothing, you know."
But, yesterday, a little less bitter, she was saying that she holds out some hope for acceptance.
"A little hope, deep down," Edwards said. "If the people would just come and see us."
The basketball arena, which fills up early for the Dream Team, was more than half-empty yesterday. The glass is always more )) than half-empty for the women. An example: On the day that the Dream Team met the press en masse, about 1,500 reporters showed up. The coattailing women followed, hoping for an audience and risking the humiliation of seeing 1,450 or so reporters leaving.
But the guys, as Edwards calls them, were there yesterday. Magic and David Robinson and Scottie Pippen. Seven in all. Charles Barkley was there. "The women have a great team," he said. "We should play them."
Clearly, the women were excited to have their support. One wore a Karl Malone wristband. Another left the arena with a Barkley shirt.
"It showed us," Cooper said, "that to them we're not just anybody. We're the Olympic team. We support them, and they support us.
"It doesn't bother us all the attention they get. They deserve it. Have you seen them play? I see Clyde Drexler going down the lane and I move out of the way, and I'm sitting in the stands.
"What bothers me is that people don't even know about us. They don't even know we're going for three in a row."
It's frustrating. And it's life. The product is improving all the time, but that doesn't mean anyone is obligated to buy. It's like Yogi Berra said: If the fans don't want to come to the game, you can't stop them.